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Friday, October 31, 2014

Thoughts on hope, from a formerly homeless man. (Spoiler...Obama didn't give me my hope)

      “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Proverbs 13:12
Today marks the 73rd day I’ve been employed here at Liberty University. For six years I struggled to find work while living as a homeless man. I’m intelligent, very hard working, willing, and able. I took anything offered while looking for the “perfect” job. I’ve built chicken coops and pressure washed driveways and even cleaned windows for a hundred bucks.
When I first lost my job in 2008, I refused to collect unemployment. I’m old school and I wanted to work my way out of it. A friend reminded me that state unemployment is insurance. It’s a policy you have been paying into since the day you started working on a W2 basis. For me that was since age 15 when I worked at the local Gino’s restaurant. He told me this was my money; I had been paying into the fund and paying for others when they were having a hard time and so I should take what I’d earned. So I did. That lasted about six months. After that I was told to enroll for the federal unemployment program. This I refused. Federal unemployment is taxpayer funded and it wasn’t money I had worked for. That’s how I saw it, at least and so I refused. I refused food stamps and Section 8 housing too.
I am entirely convinced that this stubborn refusal to accept a handout was the reason I kept trying to solve the problems instead of simply giving up and becoming a shame-filled, broken, humiliated dad, who lost any shred of hope and was enslaved by the system. I didn’t do that. It doesn’t make me a hero. But it makes me different from a lot of folks these days.
Sadly, the long, drawn out battle also stripped me of something besides my dignity and pride. It dimmed my hope. I’ve always been an optimist. So much so that my friends would frequently have to reel me back in from taking leaps of faith because I always saw everything as an opportunity, every person as basically good, every day as a new chance. Six years of homelessness, broken dreams and mostly deferred hope, changed that.
Most of my life I was the funniest guy in the room. I was always singing a song, if not out loud, at least in my heart. I was quick with a smile, just as quick to laugh, and quicker to forgive. I had a long fuse and a thick skin. I had the same passions and the same bedrock values, but I didn’t defend them with the edge and the anger that, sadly, became more and more prevalent as the last six years progressed.
But as the years dragged on, my heart grew sicker and sicker. This verse is one of the most perfect observations of humanity in the entire Bible. I think that I will ask Solomon one day; “What were you observing when you recorded this bit of wisdom? Whose life had been so badly shattered, who was it in your administration, or your family, who had been beaten and defeated for such a long time that you literally saw his heart getting sick?” That’s something to ponder for a lifetime.
I’ve lived this for the last six years. I saw my own heart grow colder and harder and sicker as time wore on. Each day, the scar tissue got thicker and the flame grew more dim and the warmth turned tepid. The laughter was gone. The jokes weren’t funny anymore, the smile faded. In their place were tears, anger, a short temper, words that hurt more than encouraged, and almost no optimism. I became an almost entirely different person than I had been for the forty-five years prior.
I started my job on August 18th. The first month or so I had some difficulty adjusting. I was very wary of people. I had not been in a daily social setting since 2008 and it is sad how you can get out of practice when you live in such an isolated way as I had been. I told a coworker today that I understand why homeless people talk to themselves so much. It’s because nobody else talks to them. We aren’t made to be so isolated, and it eventually renders every other person an intruder. I think that’s the real danger of so many mobile devices. We walk around texting, reading email, Facebooking or checking sports scores with our heads down looking at a six-square-inch screen and we are quickly becoming a world full of individuals without recognition of anyone else. We don’t see people as people anymore…we see them as Twitter handles, Facebook “friends” or “Selfie-Stars” (That is officially MY term. Don’t you rascals steal it)
I was living like Will Smith in “I am Legend” walking alone through my own personal post-apocalyptic world and talking with mannequins to fight the sheer loneliness of my life. The hope had been deferred for so long that my heartsickness was almost terminal.
It took a month for me to begin to feel like my old self again. It took another two weeks after that to really feel comfortable around my coworkers and begin to crack jokes or say hello in the hallway or smile. But it has happened. It’s wonderful that, while six years of damage was done, it only took two months to restore so much life to my soul. I have a lot of hope again. But I will never forget what hopelessness feels like.
When I began this journey six years ago, our nation had just elected a man who promised “Hope.” He was wrong. We have less hope now than ever before. We are more changed and less hopeful and, sadly, more broken as a society and less united as a country than ever in our history. Obama failed. But as much as I dislike this president and his politics and his personal beliefs, I’m not blaming him entirely. We should have known better. No president…NO president, can simply imbue hope in the hearts of people by passing laws or passing out money. You can’t give hope. Only God can do that. What we can do for each other is cultivate hope; we can fertilize it and protect it for each other. But we can’t grant it. Reagan never tried to give us hope…he pointed us within ourselves and told us how to find the hope we had already.
People don’t need free money, free cell phones or free health care. They need a job. They need a purpose. They need a dream that pushes them and they need a reason to believe that they can –with hard work- achieve that dream. They need opportunity. I finally got an opportunity and it made all the difference.
I feel my heart healing at light speed and it makes me happy, but it also makes me sad. I hurt people while my heart was so hardened and my hope was so deferred. I have asked forgiveness from those I needed to ask and I’ve received it for the most part but it still makes me sad. It makes me sad for a lot of others out there who are also feeling their heart shutting down day by day, and because of this, they are running people off when they really need their company. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. A sick heart shuts off the light of the soul. I have hope again but I wonder about those who do not.
Remember this when you interact with someone who has been losing hope for a long time. Remember this when they bark at you or snipe at you or simply walk past you without a smile or a nod. They aren’t trying to be monsters…they’re simply heartsick. They need hope. Not a government program, or a free check or a cell phone or a handout. They need a reason. They need a purpose. They need to feel like real productive people again. They need to come home to a house they are paying for, sit at a table they bought, eat groceries they didn’t buy with a “SNAP” card, and sink into their own bed, feeling worn out but thankful for work and for the promise that tomorrow brings.

That…is hope. Without it, there is only sickness.

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